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Now they're refusing to retire

Now they're refusing to retire

For many, early retirement is not an option, while others just won't retire. The reasons are complicated but they will affect you.

Baby boomers used to dream of retiring early to plant a vineyard, grow organic vegies in the country or simply spend the morning peak hour strolling along the beach. No more. Even before the financial crisis savaged retirement savings, boomers had dumped aspirations for an early retirement because they can't afford it, they quite like work, they still think they're invincible and because retirement is something old people do.

Instead of opting out of the rat race at 50 or even 60, they are hanging onto jobs into their 70s, and those who opted out are flooding back into the workforce, if only to regroup their finances.

The end of the opt-out was exposed in the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics survey on retirement intentions among people aged 45-plus, which showed that just 1 per cent of them planned to retire by the time they were 55 and only 9 per cent wanted to opt out before 60.

In the past three years, the number of people who plan to retire before the age of 60 has halved and those who want to work into their old age has rocketed. In 2005, only 8 per cent of middle-aged people wanted to work beyond the age of 70, now 24 per cent intend to keep clocking on into their 70s and two-thirds want to work beyond the traditional retirement age of 65.

If they have their way, boomers will become the longest-working generation in history and will prove that the rash of early retirement in the 1990s that took the older generation out of the workforce was just a blip.

Retirement intentions are a complex web of aspirations, financial reality, health concerns, responsibilities and the desire for freedom. And all these are top of mind for the almost 4 million people aged 45 or more who are still working today.

But for most of them, finance looms largest. The main reason the earlier generation of retirees left the workforce was for health reasons - a third were forced out by poor health. But for today's older workers, the main influence on their retirement date is financial security - 40 per cent cite this - and only 19 per cent think their health will force them out.

With the focus on money and retirement savings down at least 20 per cent this year, many will decide to defer their exit date until they recoup some of their losses.

There's good reason for them to think their physiology is in better shape than their finances.

Chris Cormack of Senioragency Australia says: "Early retirement was a boomer aspiration. Those early boomers, born between 1946 and 1952, were the ones who wanted to be doing something different at 50 years of age but they didn't realise they were developing a taste for travel, laptops and mobiles and increasing their debt levels at such a rate that it would make it impossible.

"It's purely financial, I'd love to think it's lifestyle, but it's not. These people are still heavily in debt into their late 50s so they have to keep working."

Whether it's their spending patterns or debt levels, boomers don't want to retire the way their parents did. They want to have a lifestyle, not just a retirement; they want freedom, not just a retreat, and they know they will have to pay for it. Whereas two-thirds of those who are retired rely on the pension, only a quarter of those who are yet to give up the day job want to depend on the pension. But they've got some saving to do. Only 38 per cent of people aged 55 and older have superannuation of more than $100,000.

While the financial crisis forces more retirees back into the workforce (see separate story), those who are still working are looking nervously at the post-work lives of their parents, friends and colleagues and deciding not yet and, maybe, not ever. They look at the older generation - especially those forced into early retirement by retrenchments in the early 1990s or by ill health - and see a life of penury on the pension.

They've seen the medical research that shows people who retire before the age of 55 years have a higher risk of death than those who retire at 65. They've read the brain research that shows people who continue to work have less dementia than those who drift into leisure. They know the health advice that insists that a life of exercise, activity, social engagement and purpose is the key to healthy ageing.

As social researcher Hugh Mackay says: "When they think of their parents at 60, they think of old people and they don't see themselves there. They see themselves as the youngest generation in history and they're determined to tell you that 60 is the new 50. There's plenty of evidence to say there's truth in that."

Indeed, the boomers are the healthiest middle-aged people in history, mostly because of medical advances but also because they are the generation that developed a gym habit; they are voracious consumers of medical and health services and they're the country's most devout walkers.

Just this week a survey by the University of Queensland said middle-aged women went on a fitness kick after divorce, retirement or after their children left home. And as a result, more than half the women aged 45-55 now meet national exercise recommendations.

While there is bound to be some denial going on - after all, 60 per cent of middle-aged people are overweight - the boomers are optimistic about their future health.

Deakin University's boomer project, which tracks their health and attitudes to retirement, found that 69 per cent thought their health would be the same or better after they retired. Not many medical studies would support the idea that a retired person aged 65 or older would have better health than the same person 10 years younger who was still working. But the boomers believe it.

Tied up with their ideas of health and vitality is the need to feel purposeful. The postwar youth may have dreamed of dropping out to run a dive shop in Fiji but, in reality, they ended up being the yuppies of the 1980s, the 24/7 workers of the nervous 1990s and the workaholics of the 21st century boom.

During their working life, women stormed the workforce, Australia became the second-longest working country in the world and technology allowed work to bleed into leisure hours.

Work became intertwined with their identity. "This is a generation where both men and women were more defined by work than previous generations and that's partly because of their high levels of education, where more people feel work has to be more than just a job because of all they've done to prepare for it," says Mackay.

But work also got physically easier. Most jobs today are desk-bound rather than back-breaking and even those physical jobs of old - stevedoring, mining, construction and mining - have machines to do the lifting.

While boomers contemplate that complex web of leisure aspirations, financial reality and health concerns, there are neglected issues that are shaping their future - late life responsibilities, the role of retired women and the "R" word.

As Mackay points out, 60 is the new 50 and not just in the minds of 60-year-olds. Today's 60-year-old might have just paid off the home mortgage, the kids might have just left home, most career ambitions have been settled and they are still vital and active. And their parents were in that position by the time they were 50 years old.

Just as the younger generation's entry into the full-time workforce and property ownership has been delayed and parenthood has been pushed from the 20s into the 30s, the mid-life period is developmentally delayed compared with that of previous generations.

Chris Cormack puts it a different way. "They are the matriarchs and patriarchs of their family. Their parents are still alive and often need support and their kids are doing it tough in the property market or they might still be living at home. So they say to you, 'I can't think about retiring now, I have too many people to be worried about'.

This is a reality check for those who hoped an early retirement would enable them to sail a slow boat around the world or take a leisurely route to a university degree. Instead, they find themselves saddled with responsibility.

"This is especially felt by women in their 50s," adds Cormack. "They often have responsibilities for their parents, maybe their partner and their children, and chances are they are looking after a grandchild a day a week. And most are still working at least part-time."

The middle-aged working woman is the key to changing attitudes to retirement. She went through a women's revolution when she was young and she's pioneering a different path as she ages.

The oldest generation of women were only lightly attached to the workforce. Two-thirds of them retired before they turned 55 and their average age at retirement was 47. Many of these women were the mums of the 1950s and 1960s and missed the opportunities of women's liberation.

In contrast, middle-aged women who are still in the workforce are almost as keen on staying on as their menfolk - half of them want to keep working after the old retirement age of 65.

Mackay points out: "We have the highest participation rate of women in their 50s in paid employment in history. Twenty years ago, 52 per cent of them were working and now it's 76 per cent. And that figure is higher than the one for women in their 20s.

"That sustained rate of employment says, 'we're not going anywhere soon'. They're the most highly educated 50-year-olds ever and that would imply that they are more focused on their careers and the label that a job brings.'

For women in their 50s and 60s, there is no template for their later years. In previous generations, most women didn't work and their "retirement" years were as full of chores as ever. Even women who did work timed their retirement to their husband's exit date - and, no doubt, continued home chores afterwards.

As Mackay says: "When they look at their options at their age, they look at their mother's retirement years, which were all about making him lunch and making scones for the hospital auxiliary."

Even women who are still in the workforce have caring responsibilities into their 50s - 40 per cent of women at this age are caring for children, parents or a partner.

If men approaching retirement age are more likely to worry about financial matters, women have a well-founded fear that retirement will just bring work of a different kind.

This fear was summed up in the opening words of Donna Gibb's recent book, When I'm 64. When the author asks a successful friend about life in retirement, the friend replies: "It's terrible really. No one asks me to do anything I want to do, everyone asks me to do things I don't want to do and I'm not sure what I want to do."

Finally, boomers have an aversion to the word "retirement". The marketing industry has used it as a euphemism for old age so often - think, nursing homes renamed retirement villages - that boomers refuse to go there.

As Cormack says: "They don't like the word retirement. They don't like the word boomer either and they don't like to be called seniors; the only thing they want to be called is [Generation] Ys."

So, when these late-life Gen Ys do leave the full-time workforce, they will be changing course to engage in work that they've always meant to do, even if their old sports injuries mean they'll have to work on their fitness before renovating in Provence.

Boomer's best wave is yet to come

Steve Heffernan believes his best wave is still ahead of him; he knows his kids are still dependent on him but he's not sure employers realise the contributions that people like him can make after a lifetime of diverse work.

In his late 50s, Steve epitomises many of the attitudes and drivers of the boomer generation as they enter the late stage of their working life.

"If you define retirement as not working for money, I think I'll still be working in my late 60s and I may keep my hand in a little later. Why? Because I have broad interests in national and international issues, I want to keep interested and active, especially in the community and, yeah, with teenage kids, I'll still need the income."

Heffernan has a broad work experience in civil engineering, strategic advice within government, property development and consulting, apart from his surfing and skiing interests. He recently joined Greyhair to broaden his network although he says he wouldn't be tempted to approach a recruitment agency.

"I've heard the big recruitment agencies are mostly run by young people who file away your CV without much interest and if you meet with them they don't ask the right questions. That might be one of the reasons that a lot of smarts goes begging."

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